A Remarkable Person We Have Known: John Henrik Clarke, 1915-1998

By Painter, Nell | The New Crisis, September/October 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Remarkable Person We Have Known: John Henrik Clarke, 1915-1998


Painter, Nell, The New Crisis


An Afrocentrist who believed Africana Scholarship must focus on black-white conflict, undistracted by gender and class

John Henrik Clarke, a pioneer scholar in African-American history, came to national prominence in the late 1960s. Black studies were burgeoning but experts were rare. I was a graduate student in history at Harvard when I met Clarke in 1969 at the black walk-out of an Association of African History meeting and the subsequent founding meeting of the African Heritage Study Association at Howard University.

Clarke posed a sharp contrast to scholars associated with black history up to that time. Coming from a working-class background, he appeared untainted by the arch respectability that we thought characterized welleducated blacks who, in their search for acceptance from the white historical profession, muted black anger and agency. Clarke stressed our strengths as a people.

Born January 1, 1915, in Union Springs, Alabama, Clarke grew up in Columbus, Georgia. He moved to Harlem in 1933 and joined the community of left-leaning intellectuals in the National League of Negro Youth and the Young Communist League. As a member of the Harlem History Club he found mentors in Dr. Willis Huggins and the bibliophile Arthur Schomburg.

Clarke served in the World War II Air Force, achieving the rank of master sergeant. He returned to Harlem and commenced the life of scholarship and letters for which he is renowned and revered. He cofounded the Harlem Writers Guild and The Harlem Quarterly, of which he was associate editor, studied at New York University and The New School, where he also taught. But academia wasn't ready for so singular a scholar. He continued in journalism-the Pittsburgh Courier, the Ghana Evening News-and was assistant editor of the well-respected Freedomways magazine from 1962 to 1982. In the late 1960s, Clarke did not yet hold a teaching position and could freely criticize academic historians.

They described what white people had done to blacks. My (then) new generation of black historians hated this type of black victimizing. Clarke embodied the very thing we sought: an account of black history that put black people at the center, as actors and on their own terms.

An autodidact who had not completed high school, Clarke proudly traced his trajectory all his life. As a respected scholar, he was proud of his distance from formal education, as though his lack of higher education had saved him from becoming the "educated Negro" whom Malcolm X so eloquently ridiculed. Malcolm contrasted the field-Negro race-man with the middle-class-Negro traitor-to-his-race.

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A Remarkable Person We Have Known: John Henrik Clarke, 1915-1998
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